In Dubai, the COP behemoth expands, raising questions about its sustainability

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Dubai: It’s just after sunset in Dubai and the air is smoggy, soft and warm. The Australian iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest is beaming on the deck of his ship, the Green Pioneer, as America’s chief climate diplomat, John Kerry, sings his praises to a crowd of several hundred.

The crowd, in turn, is enjoying canapés, wine and champagne. Later whisky is broken out at the bar.

“Andrew Forrest is the world’s great disruptor,” says Kerry to cheers from the crowd. “And I love it, because this is what we need and it is the only way we are going to keep 1.5 degrees alive.”

Billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry aboard Forrest’s yacht docked in Dubai for the COP28 Climate Summit. Credit: Nick O’Malley

Kerry is aboard to back one of Forrest’s green energy projects – his effort to make shipping powered by green ammonia a reality – but there is more than that happening here.

As the COP28 climate talks grind into their second week there would have been hundreds, if not thousands of parties like this one across the city.

Indeed many here have just left a drinks reception hosted by Australian and Brazilian solar groups. Tonight Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen will host drinks for Australian political, diplomatic and business delegates in what has become a traditional mid-COP gathering.

Billionaire Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest  on his yacht docked in Dubai for the COP28 Climate Summit. Credit: Nick O’Malley

And all this schmoozing is accelerating faster than climate change itself as the COP explodes in size. The first COP, held in Berlin in 1995 had just under 4000 delegates. At the blockbuster talks in Glasgow two years ago, 120 world leaders attended alongside 40,000 other registered participants. Around 50,000 people gathered in Egypt last year.

This year 100,000 are registered to attend, including around 3000 online. How many will eventually show up is yet unknown, but the sheer size of the event is prompting criticism in some quarters.

Is flying the equivalent of a small city around the world each year to discuss global warming really the best way to tackle global warming?

The optics of the event are not helped by the self-indulgence of some of those travellers too. The UK press has noted that King Charles, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary David Cameron are each flying in on separate private jets.

John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, walks to the Ukraine Pavilion at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit.Credit: AP

”’The government’s approach to tackling climate change, as we have set out repeatedly, is not about banning or reducing people from flying,“ explained Sunak’s spokesman.

Analysing UN data the activist group Kick Big Polluters Out has identified 2456 fossil fuel lobbyists who have recieved COP credentials, four times more than attended last year. If this was a national delegation it would be third largest at the talks after the host nation, UAE and Brazil.

This heavy presence has compounded criticism of the host, the Dr Sultan Al Jaber, who also serves as chief executive of Adnoc, the UAE’s state-owned oil company.

After the BBC published leaked documents suggesting Al Jaber planned to use the talks to make oil deals, Hilda Heine, former president of the low-lying, climate vulnerable Marshall Islands, resigned from her role on the COP28 advisory board.

John Connor, now the chief executive of the Carbon Market Institute in Australia, is a COP veteran who advised Fiji government when it hosted COP23, describes the meeting as the “Olympic Games of diplomacy,” but he notes there are logical drivers of the rapid expansion.

As the agreement hammered out in Paris in 2015 to keep warming to 1.5 degrees takes effect, it has broader and broader impacts. To both drive emissions down and action on addressing the impact of climate change up, every sector of the global economy has become engaged.

Environmental, human rights and civil society groups attend alongside huge presence from the financial sector.

The number of attendees expands as the work of the COP expands too.

Andrew Forrest and CEO of Fortescue Future Industries Mark Hutchinson on board the Green Pioneer, which is berthed in Dubai.Credit: Lucy Cormack

The COP has morphed into a trade show where new technologies – such as Forrest’s green ammonia ship – are demonstrated and championed, and charities and activist groups battle alongside industry lobbyists for the attention of political leaders and international media.

Among the guests on Green Pioneer was an Australian-based environmental activist who has had a significant impact in his field around the world, but chooses not to be named due to the delicate politics of environmentalism in some of the nations in which he works.

He says the sheer size and intensity of the meeting is useful to him. Each day he meets tens of people across the sector he knows and others he does not, each potentially contributing to his work. He likens spending up to 10 days focussed intensely on climate and environment to an intensive academic retreat, reshaping the way he approaches his work.

But the growing size also makes for practical difficulties. Dubai’s COP is running smoothly in the city’s vast conference centre, Expo City. Last year with half as many delegates Egypt struggled to provide enough food and potable water on site, and failed, for a time, to keep sewage underground.

On Friday negotiators cleared the way for Azerbaijan to host the next meeting, meaning that small nation has just one year to prepare for the world’s largest non-sporting event.

Should Australia succeed in its bid to co-host the meeting with the Pacific in 2026, it is not yet obvious when the decision might be made or how many people it might be expected to host. (On Friday Bowen said this was not a “first, second or third order” concern of his at these talks.)

Back on board the Green Pioneer Kerry, who is swigging lemon and honey from a tea cup as he battles a cold, winds up his speech.

“Now do what everyone dreams of doing on a ship, which is getting drunk and having a party,” he says before struggling through the selfie-happy crowd on deck towards the gangway.

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