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November 30, 2023

The ups and downs of COP 28

Even detractors find things to be hopeful for as nations gather in Dubai for the UN’s 28th Climate Change Conference.

In the news

The 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as COP 28) opens today in Dubai. It’s not a moment too soon, many would say, with glum climate predictions and studies a daily part of our news diet.

One early task for COP 28 will be to erase attendees’ thoughts of COP 27, which, as this piece notes, “ended on a downbeat note as the final communique was rushed through at the last minute and was regarded as unsatisfactory by many.”

Participating delegates, government officials and other observers had hoped for a more aggressive stance on phasing out fossil fuels, as well as more concrete action about financing progress on climate change in low- and middle-income countries. A Loss & Damage Fund for the latter was established, but to many it remained too short on specifics. For instance, how should it be funded and administered, and which nations would be eligible to draw on it?

We checked in with a regular COP attendee regarding the hopes (and realities) for not only the conference but also climate tech in general.

The Cognizant take

Following COP 27, Philip Smith “swore I’d never go again,” says the Global Head, Sustainability Advisory Practice at Cognizant—clearly one of the disaffected. COP had become a “jamboree for business,” detracting from the event’s essential—and for some, existential—goals, and he worried about multilateralism’s continuing ability to effect change.

“When we seek consensus at the scale of the UN,” a like-minded friend told him, “we build stasis into the process.” Smith wondered if smaller, “plurilateral,” rather than multilateral, meetings might get more done.

Nevertheless, Smith is in Dubai, presenting at COP 28. Encouraged by the news that the World Bank was recently chosen to house and administer the Loss & Damage Fund (though the move was not universally applauded), he hopes to see continued progress on that front. “There’s more consensus developing,” he notes, “but we still don’t know who’s going to put in what. Low- and middle-income countries are reliant on help from wealthier nations, so getting agreement on this is a major and hugely contentious issue.”

Governance and enforcement issues, too, remain frustrating to many. Smith says the vast majority of oil and gas companies continue to prospect at a rate that will provide billions of barrels of oil more than the world can afford, according to the International Energy Agency (which projects that global demand for oil, gas and coal will peak before the end of the decade) as we try to accelerate and widen the transition to other, cleaner energy sources.

But hope springs eternal. Smith is encouraged by the spirit of the recent US-China commitment to collaborate on the climate crisis, as well as the fact that necessary technologies and ambitions already exist—if the world is prepared to make use of them. At the macro level, he’s excited by the work of the Pathways Alliance, a Canadian collaboration working to make the highly energy- and emissions-intensive process of oil sands extraction less destructive through large-scale carbon-capture and storage programs and by powering operations with hydrogen, electrification and even small modular reactors.

“It’s slightly heretical,” says Smith, “but we must actually look beyond climate.” For example, he says, “we’re particularly keen to ensure technology can play a part in combating biodiversity and habitat loss.” Smith calls for accelerating and widening the use of technology in monitoring systems at the local level, and gathering data from those systems to build advanced models to qualify and quantify the impact of policies or of new facilities. “By extension,” he says, “let’s use the same technology to enable businesses to understand how changes in habitats will impact their supply chains.”

At the micro level, Smith is excited about advances in plastics “biotransformation” that cause materials to self-biodegrade through pioneering combinations of polymer science, biology and chemistry.

What’s truly encouraging, Smith points out, is that these technologies are here already. “The problem is, we get so excited by the next sparkly innovation that we regularly don’t close the loop on what we already have,” he says. “We need to deploy, scale and replicate what we’ve already got.”

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