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COP Can’t Go On Like This

Geopolitics, the heightened importance of climate change, and the sheer size of the conference have transformed the event into something that it was never meant to be.

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It didn’t attract a lot of attention, but for a few months, it looked like the United Nations climate process might break down.

There, process is substance: One of the most important acts every year is the selection of the next country to run the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP. This distinction normally rotates among the UN’s five regional country groups; next year, a country in the “Eastern Europe” group is due to host. All the members of a group must unanimously agree on which country will get to host.

This is a highly contingent way to decide who gets to host a climate conference. Really, the entire schema of UN regional groups represents a hangover of Cold War geopolitics that is now indefinitely unchangeable. (The “Western Europe” group is essentially the early members of NATO; it includes such notably non-western-European countries as Turkey, the United States, and — hilariously — Australia.)

The “Eastern Europe” group, meanwhile, amounts to more or less the former members of the Warsaw Pact. For obvious reasons, these countries cannot agree on a consensus choice in 2023. Russia, the group’s largest member, was not amenable to holding the COP in any eastern Europe NATO member state, such as Poland, Latvia, or Finland. The eastern European NATO members — as well as Ukraine, which is also in the UN regional group — were similarly opposed to holding the COP in Russia.

That meant that attention focused on the group’s countries in the Caucasus, at the edge of central Asia: Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Yet difficulties presented themselves here too. Azerbaijan successfully seized an Armenian exclave earlier this year, evicting up to 120,000 Armenians as part of a campaign described as ethnic cleansing. Armenia blocked any Azeri bid to host the COP.

For the first time in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s history, no country would have been able to lead COP the following year. Geopolitics had seemingly broken the consensus mechanism that makes the climate conference work.

This amounted to more than just a deficiency in party planning. It would have forced Bonn, Germany — the home of the UNFCC’s permanent headquarters — to host COP29, a kind of “break in case of emergency” default option. And it would have allowed the United Arab Emirates, a petrostate that has reportedly used the COP to make oil deals, to retain the conference presidency for at least another year.

That didn’t happen. Late last week, Armenia lifted its block of Azerbaijan’s bid, and the two countries mutually released prisoners in a gesture of good will. (Their rapprochement happened suspiciously close to President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the U.A.E.) Next year’s COP will seemingly happen in Baku, the Azeri capital.

But just because the COP process didn’t break doesn’t mean that it’s not being stretched. All is not well with the COP. During this year’s conference, a picture emerged of a COP being tested by a more rivalrous, conflict-prone world. Geopolitics, the heightened importance of climate change, and the sheer size of the conference have transformed the event into something that it was never meant to be.

This year, more than 100,000 people attended the COP. It was held at Dubai’s opulent Expo City, the Disney World-style convention campus initially built for the 2020 World Expo, the modern successor to World’s Fairs. Hundreds of nonprofit groups and companies, as well as more than 190 countries, ran public pavilions that advertised their climate accomplishments and views on decarbonization. Negotiators divided into different blocs: China and the United States, oil-producing states and small island nations, the West and the rest.

It wasn’t always like this. When the first COP was held in Berlin in 1995, the world was in a very different era, Lee Beck, the senior director for Europe and the Middle East at the Clean Air Task Force, told me. It was “the peak of multilateralism, followed by relative geopolitical stability and peace,” she said. The United States and the broader West set the agenda for global events.

“In the last two years — others would say the writing was on the wall as early as 2014 — geopolitical fragmentation really is visible,” she said. “You’re really pushing the limits of multilateralism at this one. One of the cracks is we’re unable to agree where the COP even will be.”

But geopolitics are not the only force stretching COP to the limit. Another is the sheer size of the event itself.

There used to be “big COPs” and “small COPs”: COP21, the 2015 meeting where the Paris Agreement was finalized, was a “big COP,” but the following year’s conference in Marrakech, Morocco, was a fairly minor one. Even COP21 was less than half the size of this year’s COP. And in one possible read, this year should have been a smaller COP — the biggest to-dos were formally launching the Loss and Damage fund and writing the Global Stocktake report, a kind of report card on the world’s climate progress (or lack thereof).

But small COPs don’t seem to happen any more. Since the pandemic ended and COP26 took place in Glasgow, Scotland, COPs have swollen in size, creating the age of the new “mega-COP.” More than 100,000 people attended the conference this year, making it by far the biggest COP ever. It was more than twice the size of last year’s confab in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, which was previously the biggest COP ever. Most of those attendees had nothing to do with the negotiations ostensibly at the center of the conference — they were investors, technologists, scholars, scientists, or experts — and instead made up a de facto global trade show on climate solutions.

COP is now so big and climate is now so important that even the lack of news about the conference can generate news. When President Joe Biden declined to attend this year’s conference, The New York Times push-alerted it.

But there are possibilities that could improve the situation. One of them might be that COP simply becomes so unmanageable that it has to scale back. Few cities have the spare capacity to house an extra 100,000 visitors for 12 days. New York City, for instance, only has about 123,000 hotel rooms total. If COP were to keep growing, the problem would only get harder. When 150,000 people descended on San Francisco for Salesforce’s annual conference in 2015, the company docked a cruise ship in the bay to provide an extra thousand rooms.

There are solutions, Beck said. She noted this was the first year that every continent had held its own Climate Week: a smaller event focusing on more region-specific decarbonization challenges. This COP has also seen the emergence of country coalitions that rally around different issues or approaches. The set of countries that backed a pledge to triple renewable capacity, for instance, is different from the smaller coalition that wanted to triple nuclear capacity. These smaller, more sector-specific coalitions may have more ability to actually decarbonize and address climate change, she said.

For all these challenges, perhaps the biggest miracle is that the UNFCC process works at all, Eve Tamme, a former climate negotiator for the European Commission, told me.

“The UNFCCC process is based on consensus between almost 200 countries. Judging based on the complexity of the issue at hand and the divergence of views among the countries, it seems impossible that such a process could deliver anything at all,” she said. Even when you follow the negotiations closely, it may seem like there’s barely any movement at all, she said.

“But then again, we got the Kyoto Protocol,” she said. “And we got the Paris Agreement. So while it may look broken in the short term, somehow this dysfunctional process can still deliver.”

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.


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