Why bad governance is the key to COP28’s failings – and how we can do better next time

In a year in which carbon dioxide emissions hit – yet again – a record high, the outcomes of the UN’s climate conference, COP28, were disappointing. 2023 has been the warmest year on record, with global temperatures between January and November this year reaching 1.46⁰C above the 1850−1900 average. In the face of this threat, the COP28 deal states that countries should aim to ‘transition away from’, rather than ‘phaseout’, fossil fuels. Whilst some have celebrated this as the first time that there has been a global agreement on fossil fuels, the deal looks unlikely to be able to hold global temperatures below 1.5⁰C of warming. The UN Secretary General fired a warning shot at those countries which had opposed a clear reference to a phaseout in the deal, saying that a future phaseout ‘is inevitable whether they like it or not. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late’. According to former US Vice-President Al Gore, the agreement includes many ‘half measures and loopholes’.

In the aftermath, the question we are left with is not how a more ambitious deal could have been reached – but rather how anyone could have expected anything better from a climate conference mired in conflicts of interest, corporate capture and greenwashing. How could a climate conference chaired by the CEO of a national oil company ever have delivered credible progress towards limiting warming to 1.5⁰C?

This is the story of how ineffective governance has hampered COP’s ambition – and what needs to be changed next time.

The President: A controversial appointment

There may not be many topics that leading medical journal the BMJ and the Pope find themselves agreeing upon. The evident conflicts of interest at COP28 – and particularly in relation to its presidency – are one rare example.

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber was appointed the President of COP28 amidst a certain amount of public debate, due to his position as CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Co (ADNOC) – one of the world’s largest oil companies. Prior to COP28, ADNOC announced a $150 billion expansion plan over the next five years, which will see its capacity increase from 4 million oil barrels per day in 2020, to 5 million by 2025.

Al Jaber has been accused of claiming that there is ‘no science’ behind a phaseout of fossil fuels to keep global warming below 1.5⁰C, a claim which commentators have suggested is ‘verging on climate denial’. Prior to COP28, campaigners called for him to step down as President – a call echoed by more than 100 members of the US Congress and the European Parliament.

According to the UN website, the role of the COP President is to ‘ensure the observance of rules of procedure and work with country delegations to reach consensus on key issues’ as well as to ‘develop a vision for the best possible outcome of the meeting’. The Code of Conduct of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states that the ‘President shall participate in the session in that capacity and shall not simultaneously’ represent the interests of her or his country.

The host: In the interests of the country or the climate?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), host of COP28, is a major oil-producing country, with 29% of its GDP derived from oil and gas according to official government data. Hosting COP might seem, therefore, at odds with the business model – the very economic imperative – of the country itself. Unfortunately, leaked documents indicate that the UAE had intended to use its role as host to further its business model, by striking up oil and gas deals during the conference.

Over 150 pages of briefing documents, obtained by the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting, suggested that the UAE would discuss developing fossil fuel projects with 15 different countries over the course of COP28. For example, Brazil’s environment minister was to be asked by Al Jaber for help ‘securing alignment and endorsement’ for ADNOC’s $2.1 billion bid for Latin America’s largest oil and gas company, Braskem. The message destined for Germany was that the UAE ‘stands ready to continue our liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies’.

The UN has stated that COP hosts are expected to act without bias or self-interest.

Greenwashing: All about the optics

The UAE was not, of course, unaware of the optics of its position as host and of the appointment of Al Jaber as President. Ahead of COP28, the country embarked on a major PR campaign in an attempt to boost its green credentials. This included the involvement of some of the world’s biggest PR firms, according to filings with the US Justice Department. Researchers from the Guardian and the Centre for Climate Reporting have also uncovered evidence of more covert influence campaigns, including the editing of Wikipedia pages about Al Jaber, and the use of fake social media accounts to better associate the UAE with net zero in online conversations.

The Green Zone: Record numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists

The Green Zone is the area of the conference open to the private sector, allowing business to ‘showcase their contributions and solutions to the global climate challenge’, according to the COP28 website. This year, the Green Zone played host to a record number of delegates linked to fossil fuel producers. At least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to COP28 – which is more than the number of delegates from the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change combined (totalling 1,509 delegates). Fossil fuel lobbyists also outnumbered almost every other country’s delegation, except for Brazil and the UAE. It’s unlikely that these individuals used their position at COP to advance ambitious, climate-friendly programmes; instead, they were paid to be there to ‘push back against science-based calls from the rest of the world’.

We could draw a crude analogy here between welcoming fossil fuel lobbyists to COP, and welcoming someone resolved to wipe out all shareholder value to a corporate board meeting. There’s a reason that governance requires paying close attention to who gets a seat at the table.

Sponsors and advisors: A story of corporate capture?

A conference on the scale of COP28 – with 97,000 delegates – requires significant resources to pull off, many of which come in via sponsorship. However, COP28’s sponsors are not necessarily well-known for their green credentials. They are required to have made certain climate commitments and to go through an approvals process, managed by EY, to validate these. Amongst this year’s sponsors were Citi Bank, Barclays and HSBC – all three of which have previously faced criticisms due to their funding of fossil fuels and alleged greenwashing. ‘Climate supporters’ of the conference included the Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation.

Consultancy firms such as McKinsey & Company used their position as key advisors to the UAE in the run up to COP to advance the interests of oil and gas clients. McKinsey, whose clients include ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco, presented an ‘energy transition narrative’ which suggested oil use only reduce by 50% by 2050, and called for £2.7 trillion – per year – to be invested globally in oil and gas between now and 2050. This is entirely at odds with the International Energy Agency’s roadmap for net zero.

Even the conference’s official advisory committee – a group of individuals providing counsel to the Presidency and ‘representing policy, industry, energy, finance, civil society and youth’ – included the US-based Chair of the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (incidentally also a former fossil fuel CEO), and the Chairman of Indian petroleum company Reliance Industries. Little wonder, then, that the wording of the final deal was so intensely debated – and that agreement on a ‘phaseout’ of fossil fuels could not be reached.

Our plea: Better governance next time

Looking ahead to COP29 next year, it seems clear that there is a long way to go to improve the governance of the conference, and ultimately to protect the discussions that take place there. Without these changes, it seems unlikely that COP as a forum will ever be able to deliver on a climate commitment – and the necessary action – to preserve a habitable world.

Last year, a submission was made to the UNFCCC calling for an accountability framework to protect against vested fossil fuel interests. It called on the UN to set a definition for conflicts of interest, to determine rules of engagement for particular categories of delegates, and to establish accountability mechanisms. This framework’s aim is to ‘prevent entities with private, polluting interest from unduly influencing or undermining UNFCCC activities and processes’.

This followed a similar submission made in 2017, which highlighted that ‘in engaging with non-Party [i.e. non-governmental] stakeholders, the UNFCCC must safeguard its integrity and legitimacy’ and that it should avoid giving representatives of the fossil fuel industry access to negotiations, documentation and information. Six years on, it is difficult to see any area of COP28 in which this has been achieved.

The UN Climate Change Secretariat, based in Bonn, Germany, has an important role to play in the UNFCCC’s work. It is intended to ‘serve as the custodian of the UN climate change process, protecting the integrity of the UNFCCC’. The Secretariat works closely with the host and President of COP, and is tasked with efficiently managing the negotiations, including the necessary documentation and facilities. Heavily involved in engaging non-state actors in COP, it facilitates both dialogue and formal work programmes. It seems, then, that the Secretariat is in a strong and well-connected position to begin advocating for – and effecting – the improvements in COP’s governance which are so desperately needed.

The UN Climate Change Secretariat must absolutely prioritise the creation of a robust conflicts of interest policy, and the implementation of an accountability framework, if COP29 is to deliver a more ambitious agreement than the one that the world has been offered this year.

Emily Ford, Policy Adviser at CGIUKI

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