Circuses have evolved and so must UN climate summits

As formal negotiations get into the finer details, Cop28 should bring more focus – and accountability – to action in the real economy

Cirque Arlette Gruss, Bordeaux, France (Pic: Hervé Simon/Flickr)


What are UN conferences for? Every year the UN climate body (UNFCCC) finds a new country in which to hold a summit (Cop), at which delegates from nearly 200 nations negotiate an ever smaller number of global climate rules, and journalists wonder what’s newsworthy enough to write about.

Luckily, at Cop27 in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, in November, the delegates manufactured a last-minute crisis which provided some good copy. But quite a few of the correspondents had already filed their “what’s the point of this annual circus?” articles by then.

Nearly 50,000 people attended Cop27. This obviously had nothing to do with the inviting beaches and lively night life of the Red Sea resort.  

Nor, in reality, did it have much to do with the UN climate talks. Only a few thousand of those attending were national negotiators. The rest – as every year – were representatives from businesses, international organisations, NGOs and research institutes. They were taking part in a physically adjacent but otherwise largely separate global climate expo. The Cop fringe programme ran to thousands of events and meetings.

That the formal UN talks have become rather small should not be a surprise. When the UNFCCC was trying to agree a new international climate treaty, between 2007 and 2015, Cops were important. Once the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed, more Cops were needed to agree the “Paris rulebook” of detailed regulations. But since that was completed at Cop26, only two big questions have really been left: loss and damage – where Cop27 agreed a historic new fund, though without any money in it; and carbon markets, where countries don’t agree at all.

Political leverage

Some people argue that Cops should therefore now be abolished, with an officials-only session in Bonn doing the remaining technical work. But that misses the point. Cops are the one moment every year that leaders have to make climate speeches, and the media can be guaranteed to publish climate stories. Getting rid of this would remove one of the few global levers applying pressure on governments to act. 

The problem with Cops is not that the negotiations have become too insignificant to merit the annual circus. It’s that the negotiations are now the wrong focus of attention. Today, progress on climate change does not occur primarily through negotiations between nation states. The Paris Agreement is done. The action now is taking place in the real economy, where businesses invest in green technologies, parliaments pass climate laws, and both are monitored by civil society.

One part of the Cop recognises this. Confusingly called both the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, and the High Level Champions agenda, it’s where the real economy actors of businesses, finance, cities, sub-national governments and civil society are invited to gather. It is organised around nine issues and industry sectors (energy, agriculture, transport, oceans, etc), each of which has a day’s programme of events. But if you asked Cop27 attendees about it, very few people knew it was happening. 

At Cop28, which takes place in Dubai in November, this could be changed. As the negotiations become smaller, the Marrakech Partnership programme could take centre stage. And it should become a conference, not just a series of stand-alone events. At a fringe event you make an announcement and bask in the applause. At a conference your announcement is debated by critics as well as friends, the difficulties of implementation are discussed, and you hold yourself accountable.  


The final point is key. Over recent years various industries, companies and financial institutions have made many ambitious-sounding climate commitments. But there is little reporting of what happened next. There are very few verified emissions numbers, or explanations of how they contribute or add to the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) announced by governments.  

One of the key features of an annual Marrakech Partnership conference would therefore be to provide measurements of these various commitments, and to report on their progress. This would be particularly suitable for Cop28, which will convene a “global stocktake” of action and inaction over the last eight years. 

In other words, Cop28 should become the first Cop at which progress in the real economy is given the same importance as the UNFCCC negotiations. On days 1 and 2, let’s take the heads of government (after making their speeches) to debate with scientists and young people the gap between promises and reality. On days 3 to 8, let’s provide space for those who have made commitments in each industrial sector to explain and discuss the challenges they face. On days 10 and 11, bring the world’s parliamentarians, mayors and governors together to learn from one another’s policies and strategies. And on days 12-14, all this could be fed into the final COP declaration. Countries could assess how far these plans go to closing the emissions and financing gaps, and commit to reporting on further progress at Cop29.  

Visit any modern circus and you’ll see that it has evolved since the days of freak shows and performing lions. It’s time for Cops to do the same.

Michael Jacobs is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sheffield, and has been attending Cops since 2007.

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