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Not much COP – Can handshakes and photo-ops really save the world?

COP – Conference of Parties (noun):

An annual summit in which world leaders gather to solemnly declare that not enough was done on climate change in the past 12 months and that they will go much further to make up for it in the next 12 months (guess what, that’s what they said last year too!)

As you may have guessed, when it comes to the annual climate change summits known as COP, I’m yet to be convinced. And this year, it would seem, so is the rest of the world. Chinese President Xi will not be attending despite China emitting more than twice as much CO2 as the next highest emitter USA, whose President Biden is attending, but only a week after everyone else got there. Russia, who are the 4th highest CO2 emitters aren’t sending a delegation at all while high profile climate activists like Greta Thunberg have also said they won’t attend this year. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did attend earlier in the week after initially saying he wouldn’t, while King Charles remains at home after being ordered to do so by the former Prime Minister Liz Truss.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his opening speech to the conference that the planet was on a “highway to hell”, a phrase that was repeated by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. But there is a distinct feeling that strong talk and dark predictions are all we’re going to get from this year’s COP. There is simply too much ‘other stuff’ going on in the world at the moment and this year’s summit has very much been happening in the background.

US President Joe Biden has been preoccupied with the US Midterm elections, where voters are more interested in how much fuel costs over how much of it they should be using. The polarising nature of US politics also spread the usual multitudes of fake news about how much the ‘green agenda’ will cost people who are already struggling with the spiralling cost of living, making climate change a minor issue in this year’s election.

In Europe, the immediate energy security fears caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine are taking priority over any transitions to green fuels, with UK, Germany and France all exploring new fossil fuel options they’d previously promised not to pursue in an attempt to bridge the gap created by the collective ban on Russian oil and gas.

China’s zero-covid policy has meant that many parts of the country are still in and out of lockdowns, while the areas which are opening up are focused on growing industry and emissions, not cutting back, to make up for the lost time of the past 2 years. And for a country who has emitted more CO2 since 2014 than the UK has since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, many are questioning whether British people being asked to cut back on things like oil, coal and gas will ever really scratch the surface when China is not interested in making these changes themselves.

So what are the big themes of this year’s COP? The primary focus this year is for countries to update on what progress they have made in achieving the 1.5C target agreed at last year’s Glasgow summit. To sum up, they’re all very sorry that not much progress has been made so far and they will work harder next year to achieve it.

Despite my pessimism, there are areas where progress is being made. With the conference being held in Africa, there has been a spotlight shown on the need for poorer African countries to adapt to climate change, with both Science Day and Youth Day highlighting the need for more resilient infrastructure to guard against increased natural disasters. Finance Day also launched two flagship initiatives: ‘Reducing the cost of Green Borrowing’ and ‘Sustainable Debt Coalition’, which both aim to widen access to affordable green finance for the developing world.

Next week there will be discussions on ecosystem protection, with small island states often using this platform to highlight their ever-increasing fears, while Brazil, fresh from new elections which have removed climate change sceptic Jair Bolsonaro from office, will likely announce new pledges to protect the Amazon rainforest, a major priority for incoming President Lula.

It is also important to remember that this year’s COP is not a ‘major COP’ like those in Kyoto, Paris and Glasgow. There will be no big target set like last year. The role of ‘minor COPs’ is to update on progress, assess new challenges and learn from what other nations are doing.

So the question is: what’s the point? World leaders have travelled from all over the world in private jets for a few handshakes and photo-ops, and even when they do meet, like when Rishi Sunak sat down with French President Emmanuel Macron, they’re talking about the small boats on the English Channel and the war in Ukraine, not how their countries can collaborate more on climate change.

I believe world leaders also need to question whether setting arbitrary targets like limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C is really the best way to tackle climate change. After all, if every single country in the world except China and Russia (who between them make up 35% of global CO2 emissions) meet their commitments, then the world is still set to miss out on the goal of 1.5C by a long way.

COPs shouldn’t be about politicians making arbitrary promises, it should be about engineers and scientists demonstrating their latest climate change technology. COP should be about how many carbon capture units the UK is donating to island nations in the South Pacific, or how many solar panels Germany are donating to countries in sub-Saharan Africa to bring clean energy to villages who have no electricity at all. It should be about countries sharing expertise on how to build infrastructure like roads and railways efficiently while private companies demonstrate how much their technology has come on since last year’s conference.

I’ve long said that talk about climate change shouldn’t be all doom and gloom, but it should be a challenge that both nations and the private sector tackle head on, developing new technologies that don’t even exist yet and exporting them around the world. Western countries shouldn’t be blaming China’s high emissions for all the world’s ills, they should be showing China that investment in green infrastructure can boost their economy and improve health conditions for their people. Climate protestors shouldn’t be gluing themselves to roads and runways, they should be putting pressure on car and airplane manufacturers to build greener modes of transport. Just Stop Oil should be renaming themselves Just Use Solar.

For as long as world leaders use the spotlight of COP each year to stand up and say “we must do more” without explaining exactly how they will achieve that, nothing will change. And for as long as countries see getting to Net Zero as a race against each other rather than a goal for the whole world to achieve together, then true global Net Zero will never be accomplished.

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