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What Really Happened on the First Day of COP28

Three important things, plus one very unimportant thing

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Hello from Dubai, where the United Nations’ annual climate conference — that is, COP28 — officially began today.

This was an enormous day for climate and environmental news around the world. Not only did COP28 begin with a surprising (and important) accomplishment, but the Environmental Protection Agency proposed cracking down on lead pipes, one of the biggest remaining sources of water pollution in the United States. Tesla is also set to release — and announce a price for — its gargantuan Cybertruck today, one of the most contentious electric vehicles launches in history.

So let’s get down to it.

The Top Three Things That Happened at COP Today

1. COP28 officially began. This afternoon, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — or COP28 — officially began. It will run here at Expo City at the southern end of Dubai until December 12.

It was not, technically, the only climate conference that started in Dubai today: Technically, three conferences kicked off. That is because since the world adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 — which is the big, arching UN treaty to do something about climate change— countries have stacked other agreements on top of it. So today was also the beginning of CMP18 (the 18th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol) and CMA5 (the fifth Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement).

2. The conference launched the loss and damage fund. This was a welcome surprise. For years, countries have debated over “loss and damage” — essentially, what richer countries that are responsible for most global warming so far owe to poorer countries that are dealing with its consequences. Last year at the COP in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, countries agreed to establish a loss and damage fund for the first time. They’ve been hammering out the details over the past year — at the insistence of the U.S. and Europe, the fund will be hosted first by the World Bank — and today the fund was officially launched, or in UN parlance, operationalized.

Germany, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates all gave money to the fund. The U.S. donated the second smallest amount, after Japan.

3. The World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2023 will be the hottest year in human history. Since temperatures in July, August, and September destroyed all-time records, this sad milestone has been more or less expected. But today the World Meteorological Organization, a UN-associated weather body, confirmed that 2023 will be the hottest year ever measured.

What to Expect the Next Few Days

Tomorrow, a subsection of COP — the World Climate Action Summit (!) — will begin. This is the part of COP where various world leaders come and speak to the negotiators.

This year sports a perhaps underwhelming set of world leaders. Neither President Joe Biden nor President Xi Jinping will be attending. The highest profile elected leaders will probably be President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom. King Charles III is also coming.

Following this event, but also overlapping with it, will be a period with lots of big announcements. Investors will announce new projects and investments. Companies will announce new voluntary climate-action coalitions. Countries and cities will announce new coalitions of voluntary action. It will be fairly hard to tell which of these actually matter in the moment, but some of them probably will.

Then there will probably be a news lull for a few days. Finally, at the end of the conference, negotiators will hash out the details of this year’s joint statement.

What I Did Today

Even though COP officially starts today, it was largely uneventful here in Dubai. No world leaders spoke; the only big news was the loss and damage fund. Many news articles heralded that COP has begun in Dubai!, without saying what, exactly, that means or how people are spending their time.

Let me decipher it for you. While COP is an international media spectacle, it’s also an enormous in-person conference — and it is subject to some irreducible geometric challenges. This year, those challenges exist on a new scale: With more than 80,000 people attending the Dubai proceedings, this is by far the largest COP ever. (For comparison, about 50,000 people attended the Paris COP in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was adopted.)

Here is what I mean: Today, everyone had to pick up their conference badges and lanyards. That is what happened at COP today. A small suburb’s worth of people — including me—waited in a line to go through security and show a chipper UN employee our registration papers and get our photo taken. The line was about 1.2 kilometers long (literally— I corroborated that with my Apple Health data) but it was run efficiently and cheerfully.

An Account of the Badge Line
(Skip this if you only care about climate change.)

According to a forensic reconstruction of my activities, compiled chiefly from an Uber receipt and the timestamp on some iPhone photos, I arrived at the conference center at 12:25pm and had a name badge almost exactly two hours later. I began keeping a journal when I realized that I was unlikely to get to the front of the line any time soon.

12:25 p.m. I arrive at Expo 2020, the nearest dropoff to the conference center. A man with a UN badge tells me to join a line without providing any details. I decide to follow the late Soviet rule that if you see a long line, you should just get in it.

12:35 p.m. A quasi-status system immediately makes itself clear. Some people have green lanyards, which entitle them to enter the Green Zone, the “trade show” part of the COP, which is governed by the U.A.E. Others have blue lanyards, which let them the Blue Zone, the official UN part of the conference.

1:14 p.m. We are handed aluminum Aquafina cans, a thoughtful gesture. Many of the people near me in line seem to be in their 50s and 60s, and the subtropical sun is hot and unrelenting. They must be starting to lose it out here.

1:18 p.m. Studying the can, I notice it is labeled “Still Drinking Water.” I find the “still” to be ontologically reassuring. It is good to know that this is still drinking water. Thank goodness I am not losing it like all these middle-aged people around me.

1:35 p.m. A 30-something man in line is wearing a t-shirt with the words “Dinosaur Facts” on it. Highlight of my COP so far.

1:46 p.m. I dimly realize that Sydney, Australia, (where it is 8:46pm) is closer to Dubai time than New York is.

1:51p.m. It strikes me that COP and Disney World are plagued by the same problem: very long lines. But if this were Disney World, we would have encountered several entertaining animatronics by now.

2:19 p.m. I finally reach through security and waiting in the final room: to receive my pass. As soon as I get through, I realize I have been silently standing in line next to a very famous environmental justice academic for an hour. With that opportunity already squandered, my COP begins.

Read Robinson Meyer’s last dispatch from COP28:

Hello from Dubai, Where the Fleece Quotient Is High

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. Read More

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