Global emissions are still rising, and this has been used to fuel an argument that COP is not fit for purpose. But this misunderstands the purpose of COP. Agreements reached at COP, such as The Paris Agreement (COP15), shift the global narrative, providing a backdrop or mood music for strategy and policy setting by national governments and executives of international organisations. Further, COP has an important role to play in providing a forum for sharing stories of success and to learn from failures.
COP continues to put a spotlight on climate change. It can be difficult to get climate change into the news when the focus is disaster. COP is an opportunity to reframe the conversation around how we transform the world to be habitable and safer for everyone. Food, land, and climate are global issues, inextricably linked, with complex interdependencies, affecting all of humanity. The extent of these issues can already be seen in vulnerable areas, and the impact in the richest areas will be much greater. More attention to adaptation is required, and COP is useful for sharing learning and successes. For example, Bangladesh adopted a National Climate Change Action Plan with funding more than ten years ago and are now one of the most well-prepared countries in the world. The richest countries in the world have the greatest dependency on fossil fuels and it is important to learn from successes wherever they occur.
The developed world is locked into existing systems. More than half the emissions come from individual behaviour around heating, eating, and travelling. Yes, we need to demand much more, better, and faster change from governments and businesses, but individuals also have a role to play. COP is reported around the world and the need for an annual spotlight has never been greater.
Crucially, COP is the only democratic space for global governance where small, developing countries have a seat. The most vulnerable areas, NGOs and activist groups can have a voice and can challenge the big players. Sharing experiences from less well-developed countries, where the impacts of climate change are already impacting societies, is important for deepening awareness among the large players and to garner support for action. For example, after lobbying for years, small countries eventually achieved agreement to fund Loss and Damage at COP27.
COP events are opportunities for world leaders to be seen. Such people depend on support from voters in their home country, shareholders, or esteem by others, including consumers. COP is reported around the world and the media circus helps hold those attending accountable for their actions and for making or breaking commitments. Appointing the CEO of the Abu Dhabi national oil company to lead COP28 is an interesting move. Vested interests are clearly exposed, and it is difficult to hide while in a spotlight. This is an opportunity to challenge the oil industry and Abu Dhabi, demand more action and leadership from the front that sets an example for others. Rather than boycott the event, as has been suggested, we can use the hosting to challenge the systems we are locked into. As the reporters and players at the football world cup hosted by Qatar were quick to explain, reporting and participating do not imply support for all that happens, but can be used as to highlight issues and shape agendas.
There are calls for more meaningful conversations to replace COP. Of course, we need other discussions to thrash out the detail of local, national, and multinational agreements, as well as the development of new policy, legislation, strategy, plans, and solutions. Such conversations are needed as well as COP. Not least because without COP we risk leaving the most vulnerable communities unsupported and without a voice on the global stage.