The summit began with several big-ticket announcements. Those on the ground, though, were very cautious of this optimism. Photo by COP28/Christopher Pike/UNFCCC/Flickr

A forced victory: How COP28 Presidency chose politics over policy

In Part 1 of a two-part COP special, CarbonCopy looks at how and why the GST text changed dramatically, especially in the last few days of the summit

Read the second part here

After two weeks of intense speculation, COP28 came to somewhat of an anti-climatic end. COP28 President Sultan al Jaber, presided over the closing plenary of the annual climate summit in ExpoCity Dubai with a clear purpose. In a flash, with a swift bang of the gavel, he announced The UAE Consensus had been adopted. A monument of climate policy had been erected in the blink of an eye, and the hall full of country delegations and observers struggled to absorb the moment. Once the initial shock of the moment passed, the stark mix of emotions became palpable. 

The COP Presidency’s self-satisfied candour of victory tried desperately to compensate for layers of underlying despondence. The room was a mix of faces—some beaming, others stony, angry and visibly distraught. A deal had been “struck”, but was it the equal outcome the world had hoped for?

The Pitch

“What is our North Star at Cop28? It is keeping 1.5°C within reach,” proclaimed Dr Sultan Al Jaber at his press conference as COP28 President-designate back in September. “Dr Sultan” as he has now come to be known, has made this “North Star” reference at various other media interactions since then. But as COP28 progressed, many, many questions were raised on the Presidency’s sense of direction.

The summit began with several big-ticket announcements. Those on the ground, though, were very cautious of this optimism. And for good reason. COP28 began under the watchful eye of more than a hundred PR professionals, who were spread out—across the event venues, making rounds of the media centre—something that has never happened at previous COPs. Some members of the media had been contacted by the PR executives at least six months prior to the actual event.  

In the first four days, the Presidency began ticking off their “To Do” list of things that, according to them, would make the COP a success. Passing the Loss and damage fund. Check. Commitment to 3x renewables by 2030. Check. Methane pledge. Check. Declaration on climate and health. Check. Week One was all about photo ops and standing ovations, but by Week Two, the toxic positivity that the Presidency was banking on began to backfire. 

With every iteration of the Global Stock Take (GST) text, the hope of striking a balance between mitigation, adaptation and financial support grew dimmer. On December 9, COP28 had its first leak—a letter from the OPEC secretary general Haitham al-Ghais, urging the organisation’s members to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy, i.e. fossil fuels, rather than emissions”. “The fossil fuel industry here [at COP28] is brazen. We have 2,500 fossil fuel lobbyists here, and 500 carbon capture storage lobbyists here. They are coming out in full force, and they are here because they feel threatened. The leaked OPEC letter shows that the oil industry is pushing countries right now to reject this fossil fuel phaseout,” said Jean Su, energy director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Copen-again: A forced consensus

The last few days of the summit were the messiest. The draft of the GST decision text made public on December 11, the last full day of the schedule, read like a wish list written by novices, with little indication of a clear vision. It mentioned the term “rapid phase down of unabated coal”. But there was no mention of a fossil fuel phaseout, resorting to confusing language that suggested a reduction in production and consumption of fossil fuels with a mid-century timeline for net zero (presumably, emissions). Eleven thousand words, but there was no mention of oil and gas either. The 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement no longer seemed sacrosanct. Placeholders for sections on adaptation and energy transitions gave it an unmistakable aura of unfinishedness. It did acknowledge that more needed to be done on climate finance. It recalled Article 4.5 of the Paris Agreement, which says that ‘support shall be provided to developing country Parties’ and expressed regret about not reaching the $100 billion goal. A flurry of instant reactions panned the language in the draft as basic, unscientific, confusing, repetitive and, worst of all, unambitious. 

That day, Al Jaber gave the media a 15 minute-heads up for two press conferences—once in the morning and once in the evening—both of which were cancelled. In fact, for the evening press conference, the media waited for half an hour, only to find out Al Jaber had started a plenary at another venue. Meanwhile, parties dissected the text and got busy with coordination meetings. Preparations for the forthcoming round of consultations on this text continued late into the night.

Delegates played the waiting game for hours on end on December 12—the day COP28 was to end—with no information coming out of any of the closed negotiating rooms. A frantic energy permeated through the venue, fuelled by the endless rumours that filled the corridors, food courts and smoking zones. 

After several hours of hushed consultations, the tension finally broke around 9pm amidst a torrent of developments. A gaggle of journos had assembled outside one of the many innocuous buildings spread across the venue. The Canadian government’s press office had invited some (mostly western) media for a limited press address to be made by Canadian Environment minister Steven Guilbeault. The word on the street was that top negotiators and high level government representatives from Japan, Canada, Norway, UK and the US were in the room huddled in consultation with the COP Presidency. After several minutes of anxious anticipation, activity erupted outside the building. Consultations were complete, and John Kerry was seen being whisked away with Al Jaber in a trademark COP28 golf buggy. The text was “moving in the right direction,” the American climate envoy managed to say before being shunted out of range of the prowling reporters. Canadian minister Guilbeault resumed with his unscheduled press interaction in which he expressed confidence in reaching a deal before long, adding that while consultations were not complete, the progress had been “encouraging.”

Within a matter of minutes, news of a leaked draft of the GST decision text started filtering through the media centre. Amidst the wildfire, the UNFCCC hurriedly asked the remaining press at the venue to retire for the night, and that the next iteration was only expected in the morning of December 13. Despite a near-deserted media centre, the news had far from died down. An hour later, the first headlines started breaking – “A deal was near; and the decision showed strong language on fossil fuels.” Meanwhile, the Presidency’s consultations with parties were still ongoing. What had changed dramatically were the odds of reaching an agreement that equitably reflected all interests, and the mood. 

The Presidency had finally managed a win and had grasped control of the narrative. With the validation of a headline to boot, the remaining consultations with parties took on a new shade. The decision was no longer something to sculpt, but only one to be tinkered with. Consensus was now close, whether it was forged or forced is a mere academic footnote. “This is a politically negotiated decision, not a technically negotiated one. The text reflects it. It has a little bit for everyone but, more importantly, includes compromises for all,” says one negotiator. Several others noted the increasing politicisation of the negotiation process under the UNFCCC, especially since COP26 in Glasgow in 2021 when the UK’s COP-Presidency resorted to ministerial dialogue to salvage a notable decision. 

In fact, political bargaining has been instrumental in most pivotal decisions in international climate policy, including the Paris Agreement. It is, however, now becoming the norm – and with that comes a reaffirmation of political and economic hierarchy in a forum meant to be built on equity and consensus. COP28 was a testament to this reality. While we might have a slew of “successes” in the COPs to come, it is hardly a guarantee that all interests are protected and reflected. It is more likely that the UNFCCC will become a high stakes table with an invitation to only the rich and powerful.

The sting this year is arguably hardest for nations in parts of Africa and Latin America, who have little to take back home as spoils of the negotiation battle. “We were under the impression that we would have one more round of consultations before the final decision was prepared, and so we are disappointed, especially on what has been delivered as the decision on adaptation and means of implementation (read: finance),” remarked one developing country negotiator under condition of anonymity.  

History does not always repeat but it sure does rhyme. Happenings of that night rung eerily similar to another consequential moment in the saga of climate politics. COP15, held in Copenhagen in December 2009, went down in history books for the secretive deals made between influential parties and brokered by the Danish Presidency. The UAE Consensus carries a similar aura of opacity—the conventional method of open and joint negotiations of text in the presence of observers was abandoned. The GST decision text was instead prepared almost entirely through exclusive consultations held by Al Jaber and his team with nearly no visibility to the public. 

Separated by 14 years, the two moments differ in one significant way. While the Danish Presidency attempted to hammer through an agreement, and in the process evicted civil society representatives and members of the media from the venue to enforce secrecy, the UAE Presidency was much more surgical in its operation. It managed to maintain tight secrecy while effectively locking civil society out of the negotiation process, break the silence strategically at a moment when the world was starved for information and keenly awaiting closure, and finally force the process into a “consensus”. And all of this with a fraction of the noise, controversy and infamy Copenhagen had garnered.

A little after 6AM on December 13, the final decision GST text was uploaded on the UNFCCC portal. The final text had some significant changes—among them was the change to the operative term should (transition away from fossil fuels), which had sparked premature celebrations the night before in some sections of the media. A few hours later, Al Jaber was beaming down on the closing plenary, donned in a distinctive grey kandurah, gavel in hand, speaking into existence The UAE Consensus.

Read part 2 here.