New Zealand’s strategy for COP28 in Dubai: look, listen and learn

COP28 starts today. PHOTO: REUTERS
COP28 starts today. PHOTO: REUTERS
COP28 is a matter of wait and see for New Zealand, Geoffrey Miller writes.

The COP28 countdown is on.

More than 100 world leaders are expected to attend this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which starts today.

Among the VIPs confirmed for the Dubai summit are the UK’s Rishi Sunak and Brazil’s Lula da Silva, along with King Charles and Pope Francis.

On the other hand, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are both unlikely to join in — and neither is Australia’s Anthony Albanese.

It remains to be seen which camp New Zealand’s new prime minister will fall into. Christopher Luxon was only formally sworn in as PM on Monday,

but in theory this would still have left plenty of time for Luxon to fly to the "World Climate Action Summit" opening event for world leaders.

Luxon positioned his National Party firmly in the centre during the election campaign, committing New Zealand to meeting its emissions reductions targets and telling sceptics "you can’t be a climate denier or a climate minimalist in 2023".

Beyond the issue of climate change itself, COP28 would be a valuable initial networking and relationship-forming opportunity for Luxon. And to some extent, the Dubai gathering would be a makeup affair for Luxon, after he missed the Apec summit in San Francisco in mid-November due to the coalition negotiations.

While Luxon missed the chance to meet Xi and Biden at Apec, COP28 would have been a good chance for Luxon to hear the views of a range of other world leaders, particularly voices from across the Middle East.

Somewhat surprisingly, New Zealand’s former PM Jacinda Ardern never went to a COP summit during her six years in office. The last time a New Zealand PM was represented was in 2015, when John Key attended COP21 in Paris.

COP28’s head appointed by host UAE, Dr Sultan al Jaber, has emphasised "inclusivity" as a key plank of this year’s event.

Bringing together a wide range of countries around the table, despite deepening geopolitical polarisation driven by the Gaza and Ukraine wars and tensions in the Indo-Pacific, may be the summit’s most impressive achievement.

The aim for "full inclusivity" is more controversial, when it refers to the involvement of oil companies and their executives at the summit, including Dr Sultan Al Jaber himself, who also heads the UAE’s state-owned oil company, ADNOC.

Since he was given the role in January, Al Jaber’s appointment has frequently been criticised by climate campaigners, one likening it to putting a tobacco company in charge of the World Health Organisation.

The counter-argument — as put by Al Jaber himself in a speech to oil company executives in October — is that fossil fuel producers are "central to the solution" and need to stop "blocking progress".

While these words are unlikely to convince campaigners who see greenwashing, there is some cause for optimism ahead of COP28.

A recent agenda for the summit released by Al Jaber called for a "responsible phase down of unabated fossil fuels" — a reference to the burning of oil, gas and coal without the use of carbon capture technology.

The call to phase down the use of at least some fossil fuels altogether represents a small, yet significant shift from earlier this year, when Al Jaber was called out by former UN climate head Christiana Figueres for speaking merely of "phasing out fossil fuel emissions".

On the other hand, "phase down" is weaker than the total "phase out" language used by a recent UN report and agreed upon by the EU as its negotiating position for COP28.

In his agenda, Al Jaber called for global emissions reductions of 22 gigatons — almost half the current level — by 2030, but also for a "just energy transition" that ensures energy supplies remain affordable and reliable to all. Threading this needle will not be easy.

Some parallels might be drawn with New Zealand’s own attempts to reduce agricultural emissions, which make up half of the country’s greenhouse gases, mainly due to the methane produced by livestock.

At the global level, agriculture is a small contributor when it comes to emissions. By far the lion’s share comes from the burning of fossil fuels, oil, gas and coal.

While the Gulf may be looking to a future beyond oil — and focusing on education, services and technology — the fact remains that there are plenty of players with a lot to lose and everything to gain from delaying the decarbonisation process.

New Zealand’s chequered experience with a joint government-industry effort to reduce agricultural emissions may offer a salutary lesson.

Keeping everyone at the table is harder than it looks.

Still, it is worth keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Luxon could learn a great deal in Dubai. — The Democracy Project.

 - Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s geopolitical analyst