We need “smaller, nimbler, bolder coalitions of the willing.”
Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Dubai anymore.
But we’re not in Kansas either. After 35 hours of travel, I’m suddenly back at the ranch — in Colorado — looking at the bedroom wall and thinking, “Wow, nice hotel room: log walls, Navajo rugs. Until it hits me: Whoa! No speaking events, marathon meetings, or late-night “statements” to review at midnight. No Metro to catch. Just my husband in the kitchen, horses out the window, and a kitten curled in my lap. ”Home! This is my room, and you’re all here… there’s no place like home!”
For two weeks the only thing that mattered to nearly 100,000 of us at Dubai’s Expo City was what life-saving agreements we could wrest from the 28th UN Conference of Parties (COP28) and the hundreds of off-site events that attract people from across the world who want to make a difference but can’t get the prized delegate badge that lets them into Oz — oops, I mean the UN’s exclusive Blue Zone.
A twist of language allowed attending nations to agree — with some dissent — to a consensus agreement and Dubai to claim a historic success.
The island nations now facing extinction gave up their insistence that the oil-extracting countries commit to “phase out” the use of fossil fuels on the schedule (by 2035) that science says is needed, and settled for an agreement calling for the world to “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050.”
That doesn’t mean they were happy about it. “The course correction that is needed has not been secured,” Samoa representative Anne Rasmussen said on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States. “We have made an incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really need is an exponential step change in our actions.”
Critics point out that the absence of targets and timetables renders the UAE Consensus meaningless. The phrase “fossil fuels in energy systems” is understood by oil-extracting nations to mean the end of oil burned to generate electricity — but that’s already down to less than 3% of global electricity generation. Oil’s role in transport is not mentioned and, therefore assumed to be not even covered by the “agreement.”
Most who focus on the science believe COP28 was a failure because the final agreement was, as UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell himself put it, only “the beginning of the end,” rather than a firm commitment. Even as he announced the agreement with great fanfare, he conceded, “We didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era in Dubai.”
“COP28 did not deliver,” said Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome. “We need better global governance and brave leadership.”
“End CoP: Aren’t we all fed up with this vapid, self-congratulatory farce?” Rupert Read of the Climate Majority Project, wrote in Brave New Europe. “This just is not the breakthrough that some are inadvisedly and rather desperately trying to convince themselves (and the less well-informed) that it is. It is a loophole-ridden, small, merely rhetorical advance, without teeth.”
A “Solutions Dialogue” at COP28 with Hunter Lovins; Vijay Kumar Thallam of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, which fosters organic agriculture in India; Walter Link, CEO of Future Economy Forum and Now Partners; and Helmy Abouleish, CEO of the SEKEM Initiative, which promotes sustainable development in Egypt.
The science is explicit: to keep global warming below the 1.5 C increase over pre-industrial levels requires an immediate cessation in expansion of extraction of fossil fuels. In 2021, no less than the International Energy Agency stated unequivocally: to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, investment in new oil and gas projects must stop immediately, and no new coal-fired plants should be approved.
Despite the UAE’s official site trumpeting the many achievements of COP28, the compromise contains no language stating who commits to do what by when.
So why go? Why burn all the jet fuel? For me, the trip was well worth the costs:
- conversations at the Majlis in a garden right out of One Thousand and One (Arabian) Nights where half the guests were European, Asian, American, African, and Latin American, and half were Emiratis.
- meeting with CEOs, heads of state, ministers, youth negotiators, NGO leaders and scientists.
- a trip to the desert with H.E Dr. Sheikh Majid bin Sultan al Qassimi of SOMA MATER, with whom we’ve committed to bring regenerative agriculture to UAE.
The endless interviews, panels, speeches, webinars and filmings disperse to the world the message that we actually can solve the climate crisis through renewable energy and regenerative agriculture. The world of climate comes together at a COP, and you can get done in two weeks what would otherwise take a year. Our Future Economy Forum put on 65 events engaging more than a thousand participants.
So our little team at NOW Partners is already planning how we will engage in COP29, now scheduled for Baku, the oil capital of Azerbaijan. Oh joy, yet another petrostate host of COP.
But more importantly, a number of us are working together on a better way forward — with alternatives to COP’s hamstrung structure.
“Business’s true power now is to admit it can’t solve this by itself, but to lean on governments to actually start to move to do so.”
“What is actually needed is smaller, nimbler, bolder coalitions of the willing, collaborations of countries (and businesses, and other entities) willing to go much further toward what actually needs to be done, if we are to have a future,” as Rupert Read put it. “Business’s true power now is to admit it can’t solve this by itself, but to lean on governments to actually start to move to do so.”
Walter Link leads a Future Economy Forum Innovation Lab conversation at COP28
Business has a role. Better governance has a role. But I no longer believe my long-held theory — that business can drive the change we need — will be enough. As I headed to COP, I wrote to a friend:
“I hear you about the need to engage the corporates and the exciting viability of creating an enterprise to do that. I’ve gone down the road you’re proposing. That’s set off a wave of helpful steps, but it has not been enough. I helped write Natural Capitalism almost 30 years ago because I believed that there was a business case to implement the many sustainability solutions to crises we knew even then were heading straight at us. I believed that if we could just get the corporates to undertake this, it would drive the changes the world so desperately needs.
“Back then, we were going on guts. We had a few examples, but not the overwhelming evidence we have now. Still, in 1999, we took this argument to companies. We built it into a 75-person operation. We consulted for Shell, BP, GM, Swiss Re, cement companies, steel companies, WalMart, companies across Europe, Asia, cities, national governments in 30 countries, the UN….
“Then I recreated a new consultancy, Natural Capitalism Solutions. We’ve advised companies representing 3% of the U.S. GDP, and consulted with CEOs of Fortune 10 companies, heads of state, and ministers of every stripe. Now hundreds of sustainability/climate consulting outfits offer such services. We designed CHGX, the first sustainability-focused ETF, and built two MBA programs to teach young people how to advance sustainability in the corporate world. We built the learning modules to teach advisors at a Big Four accounting firm how they could enable clients to implement climate solutions and greater sustainability. I’ve written more books (now 16 of the damn things), argued the business case harder, proven the business case, worked with CSR, ESG, GRI, CDP, IIRC, SASB, ISSB, TCFD, EFRAG, IFRS, IEA and a dozen other agencies setting the alphabet soup of standards and now regulations.
“Hell, NOW Partners continues this work, and in Munich and Dubai we’ll be working again with heads of state, CEOs, ministers, heads of NGOs…. The corporate-driven theory of change is worth investing time in.
“But… it isn’t driving action at the speed and scale that’s needed. Nor are the civilized, carefully argued campaigns we’ve mounted to date. I’ve marched, petitioned, lobbied, cajoled and lawyered. I’ve written legislation, manuals and guidance – for students, activists and business teams — and worked with them to implement more sustainable practices. I’ve worked with officials, legislators and staff at all levels to implement climate economies. I’ve worked with government officials, legislators and staff at all levels — from local committee members to legislators to heads of state.
“These all help. But none will stop the deadly warming until there is shared, visible political will to force the powers that be to hold companies and governments to these standards, and until a broad base of customers demand that the corporates behave.
“Without that, no amount of UN meetings, Individual Nationally Determined Contributions, civil campaigns, C-40 transition plans, corporate sustainability pledges, or cajoling will solve the crisis.
“How do we get billions of very busy and stressed little people to stand up? For starters, let’s challenge ourselves to DO ONE THING. Whatever one thing you think will make a difference. Whenever you can. We don’t try to tell people what to do. We offer ideas and information. And we respect that people can decide for themselves what one thing they can do that will make a meaningful difference in their situation, their lives, their communities. And then we help them.”
On the 35-hour trek home I reflected on the only theory of change I now think will make the necessary difference: a shared global commitment to climate action.
I went to Dubai knowing that COP would fail. Still, in the waning moments, I found myself hoping against hope that the great powers would find the courage, the vision, and the leadership to acknowledge that a commitment to turn the world 100% renewable by 2035, which Dr. Mark Jacobson has shown would largely solve the climate crisis, and deliver a six-year return on investment.
I watched the tired hug between the COP President and the head of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. Yeah, we were all glad it was over.
Would it have been better to have COP28 end in the naked failure it narrowly skirted? Might the whole world have had to admit it’s time for a different way? R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf once said, “Some believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love…”
This is how I’m now charting the course of my life’s direction. We’ll be trying new ideas that we believe will be more effective.
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