The annual Conference of the Parties (Cop) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has received so much public attention over the past few years that it is tempting to think of it as an international “event” where the logistics are paramount. Easy visa access, availability of transport, food, internet and affordable lodging, to the implementation of UN processes and procedures – these are undoubtedly critical to the smooth running of a Cop. Yet a Cop presidency is much more than arranging logistics and ensuring procedural transparency: it is primarily about Political Leadership.
I capitalise each of those words because they take on the gravest of consequences in the context of climate negotiations. And because they represent the challenge facing the United Arab Emirates, and its Cop28 president Dr Sultan Al Jaber.
In my former role as head of the UN Convention on Climate Change, I was truly grateful to Dr Al Jaber for leading sustainability efforts in his own country and playing a bridgebuilding role internationally. But seven years after the Paris Agreement the stakes are higher and the challenge facing the nation’s minister for industry and advanced technology is even greater. As all other Cop presidents, he must rise above his work on the national stage and embrace his new international responsibilities.
In terms of politics, the Cop president must surge well above national self-interest. As the ultimate embodiment of the multilateral process, the Cop presidency does not represent the political positions of their own country, or any other country, but rather represents all countries together. The attainment of neutrality with respect to the host country’s position, as well as the sincere openness to the positions of all other 195 governments and civil society, is key to the fruitful exchange of views among everyone. Trust is the fundamental ingredient without which no Cop can succeed.
In terms of leadership, while being neutral and open to all political positions, the Cop presidency cannot be indifferent to outcome. The primary responsibility of all Cop presidencies is to lead the world in advancing and accelerating current global efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change, via reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, deepening adaptation capacity and increasing finance to both. The outcome of any Cop must align with the science of climate change, which specifies that we must be at 50 per cent global emissions by 2030 and at net zero by 2050 at the latest. This means it must align with the International Energy Agency’s warning that there is no more atmospheric space for any new oil, gas or coal.
As the host country the UAE needs to model climate leadership. It could shift from having a 2050 net-zero strategic vision to a legislated 2050 net-zero goal. It could commit to supporting the proposal by Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, to direct 1 per cent of profits from fossil fuels sales to a global loss and damage fund. It could support an international phase down of fossil fuels, ensuring 2023 is a turning point in which countries boost their climate goals.
2023 is a year of great significance as it marks both the first “global stock-take” under the Paris Agreement and the quarter way point in the 2020s. This is the historically decisive decade in which we must leave fossil fuels behind. And while it is admittedly not easy to successfully combine sincere openness to all positions with deep commitment to an ambitious outcome, the future of humanity requires that the UAE and Dr Al Jaber strive to meet the challenge.
[See also: What Greta Thunberg’s arrest means]