Over 100 world leaders are expected to attend this year’s UN Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which starts this Thursday. Among the VIPs confirmed for the Dubai summit are the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Brazil’s President Lula da Silva – along with King Charles and Pope Francis.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are not expected to join in – and neither is Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
It remains to be seen which camp New Zealand’s new prime minister will fall into. Christopher Luxon is only expected to be formally sworn in on Monday, following the conclusion of several weeks of coalition negotiations to form a new government.
But in theory, this would still leave plenty of time for Luxon to fly to the “World Climate Action Summit” opening event for world leaders, which is being held from December 1-2.
Luxon positioned his National Party firmly in the center during the election campaign, committing New Zealand to meeting its emissions reductions targets and telling skeptics that “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 New Zealand’s new prime minister. And to some extent, the Dubai gathering would be a make-up affair for Luxon, after he missed the APEC summit in San Francisco in mid-November due to the ongoing coalition negotiations.
While Luxon missed the chance to meet Xi and Biden at APEC, COP28 would be a good chance for the new prime minister to hear the views of a range of other world leaders – particularly voices from across the Middle East. It is safe to say that the ongoing war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas will be a major topic of sideline conversations at this year’s COP.
Somewhat surprisingly, New Zealand’s former prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, never went to a COP summit during her six years in office. The last time a New Zealand prime minister was represented was in 2015, when John Key attended COP21 in Paris.
Coincidentally, 2015 was also the year that Key visited the Gulf states on a three-country tour of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Key sought to jumpstart New Zealand’s bid to strike a free trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The bloc’s membership also includes Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar.
In September, New Zealand’s then Labor government began talks with the UAE on a new bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The CEPA could be a stepping-stone to finalizing a wider free trade agreement with the GCC, which has been in the works since 2006.
With trade opportunities in the Gulf beckoning and no end in sight to the war in Gaza, the Middle East is likely to be higher up the foreign affairs agenda for New Zealand than might have previously been thought.
On the climate front, Dr. Sultan Ahmed al Jaber, COP28’s head appointed by host UAE, has emphasized “inclusivity” as a key plank of this year’s event. Bringing together a wide range of countries around the table, despite deepening geopolitical polarization driven by the Gaza and Ukraine wars and tensions in the Indo-Pacific, may be the summit’s most impressive achievement.
Israel pledged in July to send a 1,000-strong delegation to Dubai, led by both its prime minister and president. The size will now be greatly reduced – but, remarkably, Israel is still coming and will still have a pavilion at COP28. While the war has strained relations between the UAE and Israel that were normalized under the Abraham Accords in 2020, diplomatic ties remain in place.
Speaking shortly prior to the outbreak of the war that began on October 7, the UAE’s Ambassador to New Zealand Rashed Matar Alqemzi told me in an interview that “we are bringing the world together” and emphasized the welcome being extended by COP28 to women, religious organizations, youth, and Indigenous peoples.
In New Zealand’s case, this includes Māori, whose role at Expo 2020 in Dubai was “greatly valued” according to Alqemzi. New Zealand’s Iwi Chairs Forum, a coalition of Māori tribal leaders, was given the task of leading a “Festival of Indigenous and Tribal Ideas” during the Expo. Two years on, COP28 will be held on the same Expo 2020 site on Dubai’s southern fringe.
The aim for “full inclusivity” is more controversial, however, when it refers to the involvement of oil companies and their executives at the summit – including Al Jaber himself, who also heads the UAE’s state-owned oil company, ADNOC. Since he was given the role of COP28 president-designate in January, Al Jaber’s appointment has frequently been criticized by climate campaigners, with one likening it to putting a tobacco company in charge of the World Health Organization.
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.
Earlier this year, Al Jaber was called out by former U.N. climate head Christiana Figueres for speaking merely of “phasing out fossil fuel emissions,” which was seen as a bid to continue to use of fossil fuels with some additional technologies in place to reduce emissions. “The fact that ‘emissions’ is in that sentence is very worrisome,” said Figueres
Al Jaber’s approach is weaker than the language used by a recent U.N. report and agreed upon by the EU as its negotiating position for COP28, which calls for a total “phase out” of all fossil fuel use.
The debate over “phasing down” vs. “phasing out” is unlikely to go away any time soon. The need for speed has to be balanced with fairness – especially for the world’s poorest.
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.
After originally pledging to bring farming into the country’s Emissions Trading Scheme, Ardern’s Labor-led government agreed in 2019 to work with industry groups on an alternative pricing model and technologies to reduce agricultural emissions.
A deal was announced at the end of 2022, but it collapsed this year with key industry players and Luxon’s National Party withdrawing their support. Now in government, National is delaying the introduction of a pricing system until 2030 – well beyond Al Jaber’s deadline for action.
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. Still, New Zealand’s checkered 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.
With COP28 just around the corner, Alqemzi, the UAE’s ambassador to New Zealand, said his message for the summit’s critics is “let’s see what the UAE will do – and then we can talk again.”
It is a pivotal time for the Middle East. Luxon could learn a great deal in Dubai – if he chooses to go.