Can the COP process ever be detoxified?

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Another Year. Another COP. The Usual Performances. Grind the handle and we churn out the same performative dances year after year.

The chair and organisers declare victory — breakthroughs galore that will change the world. The climate activists declare it a total failure — doesn’t go nearly far enough fast enough; outraged that those with different views to their own are even allowed to speak.

National government representatives head home. Some relieved that they’re not being asked to do more than they can possibly deliver. Others that they haven’t received the support they feel they deserve. Different businesses will head back to assess the extent to which they have managed to look after their own particular agenda.

It’s the same tedious grind year after year. It’s easy to be cynical and declare it all a waste of time, money and emissions.

Yet, how else are we going to get progress — halting and messy though it may be? The task of getting some 200 countries all with their own interests to agree on a final text is a monumental task. It is maybe surprising that it can be achieved at all. Especially with all the different groups shouting and screaming trying to pull it all in different directions.

It could be argued that we are finally making some progress and that growth in CO2 emissions is showing tentative signs of slowing down. Or maybe not (see figure above and decide for yourself). The COP process keeps climate change active in the political agenda of many countries. Without it, climate can quickly slip down the agenda, displaced by the many, more immediate challenges.

One area that, in my view, could do with improvement is to try to avoid the atmosphere of conflict and acrimony that bedevils these events. It cannot possibly be the best atmosphere in which to try to cajole broad based cooperation. Yet we seem to insist on framing the issues in as conflictual a way as possible.

For many years (and continuing) it was the loss and damage fund that was the source of conflict. Framed as casting blame on developed nations and demanding that they, in effect, pay reparations is hardly a framing that is designed to generate empathy and cooperation. It’s a framing that has poisoned climate discussions for decades.

This year, it was the phase-out/phase-down of fossil fuels that was chosen as the star turn to toxify the talks and create as much venom as humanly possible.

The desire to include wording related to fossil fuels is understandable. Yet such wording is no more than symbolic. The reality is that we cannot wean ourselves off fossil fuels until there are widely available, installed alternatives that can reliably deliver a steady supply that meets the world’s ever-increasing energy demand. Sadly, we remain a long way away from that.

So what is the point on focusing discussions on phasing out fossil fuels when doing so cannot be a primary action but one that is dependent on effective alternatives? When cutting off supply before we have cut off demand is simply not viable?

It seems an issue designed to create conflict rather than work towards the practicalities of an effective energy transition — something that is difficult enough as it is, even without creating an atmosphere that destroys goodwill between various parties, all of whom need each other.

Still, despite the battles, maybe the process works after all. The final wording of ‘transitioning’ away from fossil fuel seems reasonably grounded. Even though it will still infuriate many.

This post first appeared at

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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