A global problem, like climate change needs a global solution and global agreement - it needs everybody pulling in roughly the same direction. The COP process has always been glacially slow and to some degree flawed, but it’s the only process we have, and we have come to over expect and over rely on it. 

But with UN Climate Change COP28 due to start in Dubai this week, it seems like the whole UN COP process is currently in serious jeopardy.

News this week suggests that preliminary conversations in the lead up to COP28 have been abused to promote and sell more oil on behalf of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). Handing the keys of such a sensitive negotiation to the head of an oil company was always a risky move. It stretches trust to breaking point and it would appear that UAE has abused that position to simply sell even more oil.  It's an absolute travesty if it's true.

Any international agreement relies on all parties committing to act, and therefore is susceptible to being held up by the most reluctant laggards in the group. These have traditionally been Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, but unfortunately also includes nations that we are perhaps more familiar with like Australia, Canada and the US.   The fact that we're currently having COP28 - the 28th annual meeting to discuss progress, and we're still seeing more emissions emitted year on year, does rather underline the clunky and lethargic decision-making process.  

So the world marches on to higher and higher carbon emissions. The parts per million in the atmosphere grow steadily year on year and the international community largely fail to respond in any really meaningful way. But every year that passes and every year that fails, puts more and more and more pressure on next year's COP or the next year's or the next year's, and its starting to feel increasingly desperate. 

So here we are COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, one of the oil powers in the world that have slowed progress on climate agreement globally.  The Middle East is understandably afraid of giving up oil because it has built its entire wealth around oil. And so it's not unreasonable for them to be concerned. But the world needs to give up fossil fuels, so how do we find a balance?

Moving COP to the Middle East was always a risk. It was done because the United Nations try to share the hosting of these events equally around the different regions of the world. In a way, the Middle East is probably one of the most impacted areas in the world, as it represents one of our climatic extremes.   Temperatures are soaring and it is becoming unliveable during certain parts of the year and the day.  Destabilising political unrest is driving migration, and pressuring communities, which climate is simply adding to, and it is an area at risk of extreme water shortages and increasing desertification.  The people of the Middle East therefore have an existential need to tackle climate change.  But the Middle East is also the seat of world oil production, and the man chosen to be president of COP28 by the United Arab Emirates is the head of an Oil Corporation (ADNOC).  So who’s interests will be best served during COP28 – the people of the Middle East and the wider world, or the fossil fuel companies?   The news this week already points heavily to the oil companies.

The United Nations needs to take a long hard look at the process.  It is not an easy job to bring the world's governments together to make any sort of agreement, but maybe this process is just simply not fit for purpose. We need to look elsewhere for leadership elsewhere for progress, and not leave all our eggs in this one basket, especially if we want progress at pace. 

As if the controversy around COP28 wasn't enough, COP29 is also in jeopardy because the UN cannot get agreement on which country should even host COP29.  According to the UN rules, it should be somewhere in what was the Eastern Bloc but Russia, one of the laggards in climate change, and of course the aggressors in the Ukraine war, are blocking that agreement, so COP29 doesn't even have a home.  The UN need to sort this out urgently-  how can we have any confidence in a process that is being so undermined that it can’t even agree a venue?

These are hugely unwelcome distractions in a vital negotiation, that needs all the attention and focus it can get.  The UN is in danger of wasting all of its energies and powers of negotiation simply to find a place to meet and not to deliver meaningful agreement.  As the UN continues to make plans for COPs 29, 30 and 31 and 32 ad nauseam we need to find other ways to move society forward, because every year that passes without tackling emissions pushes us closer and closer to the precipice of runaway climate change. 

My firm belief is that politicians are way behind the curve in terms of what people want to see happen and are too subject to short term pressures to be able to commit to the necessary change. To deliver on climate change we need another system.   Ironically one of the most successful agreements to impact greenhouse gas emissions was the 1987 Montreal Protocol which was a focused conversation on cutting CFCs in order to stop the ozone layer deteriorating.

We need more of these types of protocols, sector by sector, ticking off of the critical things that need to change.  Smaller, more achievable agreements that add up, rather than one big agreement that doesn't appear to.   A global agreement on cement.  A global agreement on steel production and aluminium.  A global agreement on aviation, on nitrates and pesticides, on renewable energy and hydrogen.  On carbon capture technology, to prove it can even work at scale.  We need to see progress even when some countries drag their heels, as some have done for decades.  We need a framework of co-ordinated and vibrant global discussions, beyond the stultifying behemoth that COP has become, and not one in which the worst trouble makers are handed the reins and asked politely to steer us out of trouble.

There are far too many expectations and demands on the UN COP process, making it feel like all humanity’s eggs are in the one basket.  We need some more baskets.