The true impact of COP 28 lies off-stage

30 Nov 2023


This month sees the start of the UN’s annual climate change conference (COP28, Dubai, 30 November – 12 December), and it is hard to recall of any of its predecessors commencing under such inauspicious circumstances. Here, Rachel White, Ricardo Global President Clean Energy and Environmental Solutions, argues that to understand the value of the COP conference, we must look beyond the rancour in the main auditorium and explore the side events and small meeting rooms.
In picking up the baton from the fractious COP27 – where even the final communique was subjected to last-minute amendments – this year’s proceedings have ground to recover on key issues such as the phasing out of fossil fuels and distribution of financial support for developing nations.
But on top of that, the negotiators must also find their way through the global economic and geopolitical crises that have engulfed our political leaders during the past 12 months, causing the climate challenge to slide down political agendas. Indeed, the past year has seen previously front-footed governments reveal a preparedness to push back deadlines, dilute targets, and, in some instances, replace long-term commitments with short-term initiatives that, at best, one would describe as sub-optimal.
And yet the urgency remains. 2023 is set be the hottest year on record; while a UN report in November 2023 stated that current carbon-cutting policies are so insufficient the world is on course for a 3°C increase of heating within this century, rather than the widely agreed target of 1.5°C.
A catalyst for environmental innovation and collaboration
While the attention will focus on the high-level diplomatic efforts to secure binding agreements between almost 200 participating nations – a near impossible ask – this somewhat overlooks the wider importance of the COP process.
Away from the political machinations, the COP fortnight also exists to give direction and momentum to the myriad multi-lateral partnerships, businesses, campaigners and technical specialists who work year-round to analyse data, design policies and deliver an extraordinary range of unheralded projects that are already making a difference in every corner of the world. 
For example, colleagues in Ricardo are currently working with the European Commission to advise regions in developing climate resilience plans, ensuring that local decision-makers have access to specialist expertise in designing demonstration projects, identifying sources of funding, and engaging with citizens and stakeholders.
We also have teams engaged in an international consortium of 13 partner organisations from six different countries who are developing hydrogen fuel cell propulsion for the maritime sector; as well as a team of specialists working alongside bus and transit operators to identify viable options for introducing zero emission fleets to their network.
Initiatives like these – and the people who commission, design and deliver them – draw inspiration from the COP fortnight. It’s an annual platform to make their case, to share insight, create alliances and get ideas in front of key decision makers. Ultimately, it is a global catalyst for environmental innovation and collaboration.
Though we hope for consensus and diplomatic breakthroughs at the highest levels, be in no doubt that it is behind the scenes, in the forums and side rooms away from the main auditorium, where progress will be made. Where skilled, committed and inventive individuals will be using the occasion to shape long-term thinking, and propose the technical advances we need while calling out the short-term compromises that we do not.

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