Good Sunday Morning!
I am so happy to be home in Sidney, no matter how briefly. I got home from Dubai on Friday. Christmas is my favourite time of year. Like so many families, we are a bit scattered. Cate will be in Toronto with her partner and his family. John and I will manage brief visits with his Vancouver-based daughters before boarding the train to Toronto Christmas Day. We will ring in the New Year in Toronto with John’s sister and her family as well as Cate and Reed and my older step-kids and their dad in Toronto. Cannot wait! Meanwhile there is so much to share about COP28.
I thought what might be useful for today’s letter would be to focus on some of the questions and criticisms I see often – in the conventional media and in the nastier versions of what gets called “social media” and yet is profoundly anti-social.
In the wake of the pandemic and extensive use of Zoom and other virtual meeting systems, I am often asked why conferences dealing with the climate crisis involve so many people flying to remote destinations—burning so much jet fuel to do so.
There is no doubt that having a reported 97,000 people at COP28 involved a lot of people whose participation was unhelpful. Canada’s delegation ballooned with over 200 from the provinces, mostly from Alberta. Although it also included Quebec, with climate policies the polar opposite of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Quebec stepped up at COP28 to co-chair the international Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). And there were a reported 4,000 or so fossil fuel lobbyists.
It would be great if the United Nations could establish some criteria before granting credentials, but that is a very tricky proposition. Even a relatively small COP is going to involve a lot of participants. There are 193 nations in the United Nations with at least a dozen technical issues being negotiated over the two-week COP. Poorer nations have smaller delegations, but often academics from industrialized countries volunteer to assist smaller and poorer countries. And then there are critical bodies that advise the process, such as the IPCC and the UNFCCC secretariat. With reasonable access for civil society, youth, Indigenous peoples, labour and other key sectors, even a small COP is very quickly in the tens of thousands.
Complex negotiations simply cannot happen online. Not all the sessions are in plenary. Progress is made in corridors, in what the UN calls “formal informals” and even in “huddles” that are in fact small groups of key delegations meeting in a huddle! At every COP the chair, or president, plays a key role in moving the parties toward consensus. Or in cases of failure like Copenhagen, creating distrust among the parties through backroom deals—as happened under the Danish Presidency at COP15 in 2009.
Negotiations often run 24/7. Quite often you hear of progress in a 3 am meeting the “Presidency” had with a small delegation representing one group of nations that band together in the process. The “LDCs”, for instance, are the “least developed countries”. Canada negotiates within something called “the Umbrella Group”—a designation that started in Kyoto, if memory serves, of the US, Australia, Japan, Canada and New Zealand. The Presidency keeps round the clock office hours, especially in the inevitable crunch as the clocks run out on the negotiations. Bit by bit, one piece of agreed text at a time, with trial balloons launched and then shot down. It is a very complex dance with many moving parts.
One of the things that is extraordinary about a COP is that even as tensions and literal wars are raging, the UN system, as flawed as it is, manages to keep a conversation moving along. Both Russia and Ukraine are in the room. The nations pushing for language to call for a phase-out of fossil fuels included Canada and the Umbrella Group, the European Union, the LDCs and of course the low-lying island states. The coalitions of nations pushing back and demanding that fossil fuels not be mentioned, much less identified for phase-out, was spearheaded by the Saudis, with Russia and Iran as well. Although the final text can be criticized for calling for transitioning away from fossil fuels, instead of phasing them out, it is close to miraculous to get nearly 200 countries to agree on the statement as the first Global Stock Take within the Paris Accord.
See my article in Policy magazine, ‘Letter from COP28: A Climate Lifeline Worth Grabbing’ for a fuller explanation of how the 1992 Climate Treaty back in Rio relates to the Paris agreement and the process called a Global Stock Take. While much of our media says it is non-binding, that massively understates its significance. For nearly 200 nations to agree with every word of any text is astonishing, but to agree to text that makes it clear hanging on to 1.5 degrees requires getting off fossil fuels and taking urgent action seemed out of reach even days before COP28 concluded. In the text there are frequent references to “this critical decade”, but the IPCC reference to required peaking and reductions before 2025 is in there too.
Another reason these have to be held in person is I am convinced that it is unlikely personal relationships from previous COPs that allow for a spirit of compromise could happen in an online gathering. Ultimately, negotiators who like each other, trust each other.
One such key and unlikely pairing is the former US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart from the People’s Republic of China, Xie Zhenhua. In the lead-up to Paris, it was Kerry and Xie Zhenhua who put together a US-China pact that opened the way in Paris. In Glasgow at COP26 I watched as the two men “worked the room” to get better and stronger language. They were together again in Dubai. When I saw them in a quiet tête-à-tête Wednesday morning, reading their body language, I knew we had a deal.
Another unlikely pair is Canada’s minister of Environment, Steven Guilbeault and Egypt’s Minister of Environment, Yasmine Salah El-Din Fouad Abdel Aziz. Minister Fouad served as the President of COP27, held in Egypt last year. And she helped in the room in Montreal at the Biodiversity COP last year. At COP28, she and Canada’s minister served as co-facilitators on one piece of the text. They held a really unusual session during COP28 billed as a fireside chat. She is a very elegant 60-something diplomat. And in the session with Steven Guilbeault she was clearly exhausted. They joked about how the only way she managed to keep going in sessions that lasted hours trying to budge a group of nations to consensus, was to be sure to have lots of chocolate bars on hand. She mentioned her commitment to a good result for future generations, and she added with some real emotion, for all the countries of Africa that are counting on her. She said something like, “I cannot go home if I have let them down.”
As the dust settles from COP28 it is clear the actions are insufficient. It is barely possible to hold to 1.5 degrees and Dubai does not get us there. It would be a step backward if oversold as a triumph. We cannot let up on pressure to act quickly and decisively. On the other hand it is a critical step forward. In many ways it changes nothing. The only way to hold to a livable world is through massive public mobilizations and massive pressure to move every government on earth. So I do not disagree with Greta Thunberg’s denunciation, but I also think to be only negative is to invite greater despair. That we cannot afford.
If COP28 had failed we would unquestionably be in a more dire situation. As it is, this first shared stock taking is unequivocal and urgent. COP28 named the problem, and the problem is our addiction to fossil fuels. We have all agreed survival depends on breaking our addiction.
Parliament has now adjourned until the end of January.
Thursday I was able to zoom into Parliament from Toronto, something not allowed from outside of Canada, to pursue the issue that took me to the United Nations last month—nuclear disarmament, as you will see here. With a question on the TPNW!
It is another UN treaty. Another treaty without teeth.
Focusing on how to make this essential multilateral system more powerful and effective must concern all democracies.
We are in a race against time to avert an unsurvivable climate breakdown, just as democracies are in a race against time against totalitarian states and ideologies of the “strongman”.
Rescuing all of us from these polycrises is our mission and it is not impossible.
Take the break for peace and reflection the holidays offer. And try to persuade friends and family that this is our collective fight—and that together we can do it!
So happy to be home. Have a wonderful holiday and a very Merry Christmas. John and I have decided against gifts this year and instead are making donations to charities that help in Gaza. It’s not much but it is something…
Love to you all,Elizabeth
PS: a wee reminder, I would be so grateful for donations to the Green Party of Canada before New Years. Please consider maxing out your 2023 donations, if you are able!